Publishing in Latvia 's small in size but not in content

  • 2009-10-01
  • By Olga James

CAFE SOCIETY: Despite the increasing use of the Internet, readers in Latvia still get their 'intellectual pleasures' off the printed page.

RIGA - Even though the publishing industry in Latvia cannot be compared in size to those in the UK, German or French markets, publishing houses issuing newspapers, magazines and books play a very important role in country's everyday life. "The nation that does not read also does not think," said one of the Latvian classics Gustavs Libbe, and this idea underscores the importance of publishing and literature in the life of the country. The availability of quality learning materials is the foundation of a sound educational system; history is preserved in memoirs and historic novels, while poetry (a language within a language according to the French poet Paul Valery) is a direct reflection on the country's cultural heritage. 

Latvians are a reading nation, and there usually is at least one bookstore in every town. Even the increasing use of the Internet, by all age groups (the oldest Internet user in the country is still clicking the mouse at 97), does not seem to threaten the printed word. Internet and publishing coexist peacefully and develop in parallel, each in its own unique way. According to the data, while the majority of Latvians prefer the Internet as a fast and efficient channel of obtaining information, most people are still referring to the books for what they call 'intellectual pleasures.' Plainly speaking, many more Latvians would be snuggled up with a good book than with a laptop on rainy autumn evenings, and sector analysts do not see this trend changing in the near future.

There are over 395 printing and publishing companies in the United States. There are less than twenty publishing houses that currently dominate the Latvian market. However, if we remember that the population of Latvia is less than three million, the number seems quite proportionate to the size of the market.  Jana Rozes, Zvaigzne ABC, Valters un Rapa and Jumava are among the biggest market players, issuing the largest number of books to date. There is a broad offering of various literature at the Latvian stores: from fairytales for young children to school books for students to the historic novels and fiction books for moms and dads. Latvian publishers are quite efficient in bringing the latest books available on the global marketplace to the Baltic readers. For instance, The Lost Symbol, the acclaimed third novel of Dan Brown that was released in September this year is expected to hit Riga bookstores in November (the publishing house Kontinents has exclusive rights to translate and issue the book in Latvia).

Still, the current market composition might carry certain drawbacks in the long run. Bigger publishing houses tend to be very efficient in studying market tendencies and in bringing in-demand mainstream literature to the readers. Smaller, more flexible firms are typically more willing to take risks with unknown authors and are therefore better adapted to discovering the hidden gems of literature. Moreover, publishers operating on a smaller scale will often specialize, to ensure a unique service offering, thus building up a sustainable competitive advantage in their given niche. As a result, the customer benefits from a wider variety of published material available in the stores. However, the history of the robustly developing publishing market in Latvia leads one to believe that after the economy in the Baltic countries bounces back to pre-crises levels, we will see more small business and medium enterprise development in the Latvian publishing sector.

     Latvia has a wide variety of magazines and newspapers available to the reader. Latvian and Russian are the most popular languages for the printed issues, and some periodicals maintain bilingual Web sites. Diena (The Day) is one of the largest daily Latvian-language newspapers covering business, politics, arts and entertainment. Dienas Business (The Daily Business) also comes out in Latvian, but is focused on economics and business. Chas (The Hour) and Telegraf (The Telegraph) are the Russian-language newspapers that each enjoy a considerable market share.

Apart from the Riga - based periodicals a number of regional towns have their own newspapers covering local news. Liesma in Valmiera, Druva in Cesis or Siguldas Avize in Sigulda maintain their loyal client base, and have not scaled down on their subscriptions despite challenging economic conditions in the regions. The local newspapers might be in an even better position to weather the tough times than their larger Riga-based counterparts. Two main reasons why local readers would opt for the town paper include the much lower price and the unique content. "I don't really feel the need to read bigger newspapers," says Anna Abolinja who has been buying Druva at the small Cesis newspaper stand for the past decade. "I can always switch on the TV and find out what's going on in Riga or in the world outside, without having to pay for it. I can only read the Cesis news in Druva, and it's really inexpensive, so almost everyone can afford it."

In line with the global tendencies of development in the publishing industry, Latvian newspapers are currently facing two major challenges: the effects of the economic downturn, and the competition from online news channels. As Mihael Kinslrey summed it up in his (online) article 'Do Newspapers Have a Future?' he asks "Who needs a newspaper? You can sit down at your laptop and enjoy that same newspaper, or any other newspaper in the world."

The new economic reality in the Baltic states has certainly made a lot of Latvians curb their expenses, while online news is free and available 24/7. Also, ink-on-paper products are viewed by some experts as being slower to change and adapt to the evolving media landscape than their online competitors.  Since in times of economic difficulties people not only spend less, but also spend differently, it is essential for the newspapers to analyze their development strategies for the upcoming years. Those are the issues that require a long-term strategic approach and creative solutions going forward.

Studies show, however, that magazine sales are less affected by the recession than newspapers. That's because magazines, along with movie tickets and budget cosmetics, belong to the category of inexpensive 'pick-me-up items' that lift the person's mood without putting a strain on the budget. For instance, Ljublju, one of the most popular women's magazines, costs a little bit over 2 lats (2.85 euros), which is a bargain compared to the comparative price levels in Western Europe. Also, the competition that magazines are facing from their online counterparts in Latvia is considerably less severe than the competition faced by newspapers. The mix of products composing a typical Latvian entertainment magazine include beauty tips, celebrity gossip, quizzes, games and style advice, for which the online equivalent is still hard to find.

The printing industry in the Baltic states has been feeling the effects of the international financial crisis, and the number of published periodicals has dropped across all industry segments. However, business remains optimistic about the future. There is a direct correlation between the publishing and printing business, and with the majority of Latvian printing houses slashing their prices in order to stay afloat, publishers are well poised to reduce their expenses as well. Within the domestic market, employers have access to a much greater number of particularly well-educated and highly motivated employees that are willing to work harder and make concessions to ensure the survival of the business. The most important challenges for Latvian publishing businesses in the coming years are to be able to exploit growth opportunities that became scarcer due to the negative effects of the financial crisis, to recruit qualified labor, and generally to be able to manage increased competition from online media.